By Steve Presence.
Organised by students and lecturers at the University of the West of England, Bristol, the first Bristol Radical Film Festival showed that explicitly political cinema – and audience demand for it – is alive and kicking. Held in a variety of venues over the course of a week, the festival showcased some of the most politically and socially engaged documentary films from around the world, with a particular focus on work in the UK. From classics of radical film history to some of the finest contemporary oppositional documentary, the festival culminated in a packed weekend of screenings, talks and debates at the volunteer-run and not-for-profit cinema, The Cube.
Though the festival proper ran for seven days, the organisers held three promotional events from January until the start of the festival at the end of February. Entitled ‘Not Gay as in Happy but Queer as in F**k You’, the first of these set the festival trend of combining shorts with feature presentations which, in the tradition of political cinema screenings around the world, lead into lively audience debate. Combining Kenneth Angers’ classic Fireworks (1947) with Marlon Riggs’ remarkable queer documentary, Tongues Untied (1989), this opening event set another trend that was to continue throughout the festival – large, lively and diverse audiences.
The festival itself began with an evening celebrating the anti-roads protests of the 1990s. Held at Bristol’s radical bookshop, Hydra Books, the event began with a presentation by photographer Adrian Arbib, who spent time covering the demonstration at Solsbury Hill in 1994. Jogging more than a few memories of those members of the audience old enough to have first hand experiences of this period of protest, the lively discussion was followed by a screening of Neil Goodwin and Mayassa al-Malawi’s documentary Life in the Fast Lane (1995). One of the few feature documentaries to cover the roads protests, the film details the fifteen month campaign against the M11 Link road in East London. Made by activists who lived on the proposed site of the road, the film is not only an important document one of the most vibrant forms of direct action in the twentieth century, but also a key instance of the new forms of radical filmmaking that also emerged at that time. Coinciding with the destructive environmental policies of Major’s Conservative government were developments in camcorder technology, wildly increasing activists’ access to the means of representation. Indeed, it was on the M11 protest that Undercurrents was born, the radical newsreel that would go on to become one of the most successful radical newsreels ever seen in the UK (see below).
The second night of the festival was in such high demand that many were turned away from the door. Entitled ‘Women and Resistance’, this was appropriately held at Bristol’s One25 Project. Based in St Pauls, the organisation provides a variety of support and services for sex workers in the city. The short film this evening was Hamish Campbell’s Greenham: The Making of a Monument (2001). Introduced by the director, the film’s dual narrative tells the story of the famous women’s Peace Camp at Greenham military base in the 1980s, and the successful struggle against local Tory councillors for the right to a monument commemorating the protest. Archival footage spliced with contemporary talking-heads of the women who organised the initial march to the camp – where they then made the decision camp at the base rather than go home – makes for inspiring viewing. This film was followed by the slightly longer Bringing It All Back Home (1987). Made by the Sheffield Film Co-op (one of a number of women-only film co-ops that emerged at that time), the film is an alarmingly familiar account of an economy in recession, with local communities suffering the consequences as capital contracts and then expands elsewhere in the world, this time seeking new markets and de-regulated labour laws in south east Asia. An instance of militantly anti-capitalist feminist filmmaking, this was another entry in the festival programme that cannot be found elsewhere. A rare gem indeed.
Wednesday and Thursday’s themes proved closely related. Wednesday’s films at the collectively run Cafe Kino in Stokes Croft documented two different kinds of oppression of two different British traveller communities, again with one film providing historical background to the other. The first was Operation Solstice: The Battle of the Beanfield (1991), which explores the infamous event in 1985 when police blockaded and attacked a ‘peace convoy’ of 550 traveller men, women and children on their way to the annual Solstice Festival at Stonehenge. Fresh from battles with striking miners, the militarised police force that is exposed in film were, as even the mainstream reporters openly acknowledged at the time, out of control. One of the most explicit documents of police brutality in the history of radical British cinema, the film was of the most disturbing of the programme and an appropriate context for the following short film on the recent eviction of Dale Farm. This was the first public exhibition of this latter film – just finished in preparation for the Traveller Solidarity Network’s forthcoming Info-Tour – and had the desired effect, generating intense interest, discussion and debate lead by activists from Dale Farm. Thursday’s event continued this focus on police brutality. More than 100 people packed out the Malcolm X Centre in St Pauls to see London film collective Reel News’ short film on last year’s riots, Rebellion in Tottenham (2011), followed by Ken Fero’s Injustice (2001), a film that exposes the shocking racism behind the long line of deaths in police custody (more than 1000 since 1969). Frightening and informative by turns, the films stimulated much debate and even action, with an email list created and the seeds of a community action group sown.
Friday saw the opening of the festival’s headline weekend at the Cube, starting with the suitably upbeat and celebratory short by Nick Broomfield, A Time Comes: The Story of the Kingsnorth Six (2009). One of Broomfield’s films which doesn’t include the director on-camera, here screen-time is given solely to the activists who set judicial precedent in 2006 when they occupied Kent’s coal-fired power station, and were deemed not guilty when the jury declared their actions justified by preventing the bigger crime of environmental destruction. More contentious was the headline feature, John Jordan and Isabelle Freemeaux’s Paths Through Utopias (2011). Beginning with the Climate Camp protest at Heathrow in 2008, the film follows their journey through Europe as they visit various attempts to imagine alternatives to capitalism. From anarchist collectives in France to occupied factories in Serbia, the film explores these more oppositional communities alongside other more lifestyle-based alternative communities, such as the Danish ‘freetown’, Christiania, and a free love commune in an ex-Stasi camp. Paths Through Utopias had the most polarising effect of all the audience discussions, some responding with enthusiasm to these imaginings of a future beyond capitalism which others saw as the private fantasies of a privileged few wealthy enough to realise their own ‘utopias’.
The final two days were as lively as the rest, Saturday kicking off with a video-activist training workshop by visionOntv. Showing just what new media technologies are capable of, in just two hours participants learned the fundamentals of video-activist practise, made a range of short films and distributed them online. The festival lunch break coincided neatly here with an opportunity to practise these skills for real, as a protest against workfare took place in the city centre. Reconvening after the protest the next session showcased some of the best video-activism in Britain, with panel presentations by some of the UK’s most radical video-activist groups. From Camcorder Guerrillas in Glasgow to Reel News in London and Bristol’s own iContact and Permanent Culture Now projects, this was an inspiring session that highlighted this lively and diverse aspect of British oppositional film culture. After a short break the first screening of the day got underway with The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1974), the first half of a double-bill with Anthony Baxter’s You’ve Been Trumped (2011). The first of these is John McKenzie’s adaptation of John McGrath’s play about the systematic exploitation and robbery of the Scottish highland peoples’ land and resources since the 18th century. An inspired mixture of dramatic reconstruction, theatrical performance and documentary footage, the film’s eclectic approach to film form is as striking today as it must have been in 1974, it’s critique of the many manifestations of the ruling class no less relevant. The headline film, You’ve Been Trumped (2011), documents the ongoing struggle of residents to protect their land from global American capital as Donald Trump tries to build a luxury golf-course over an outstanding site of natural beauty (and local a local farmer’s livelihood).
Nursing sore heads from the party on Saturday night, Sunday got off to a late-morning start with a presentation and screening by Paul O’Connor of Undercurrents. A staple of the British radical film scene since the launch of their newsreel in the 1990s, dubbed ‘the news you don’t see on the news’, Undercurrents have been going strong ever since. O’Connor’s illustrated talk provided a fascinating introduction to the variety of work they have produced over the years and an interesting account of their current activities. The Sunday afternoon session turned a critical eye towards Dogwoof, Britain’s premiere distributor of ‘social documentary’ films. From Black Gold (2006) and Age of Stupid (2009) to the Yes Men Fix the World (2011) and An African Election (2011), Dogwoof distributes almost every high-profile mainstream documentary engaging with social change one cares to mention. Following an introduction to their work a screening of The End of the Line (2009) met with harsh criticism, as audiences dissected a film which stood out from the rest of the programme as a relatively big-budget production which suggested individual solutions to the pressing issues of overfishing in the world’s oceans. Particularly unwelcome was the film’s nod towards McDonald’s and Wal-Mart as responsible corporations leading the way in sustainable seafood retail. The next session hosted a variety of local and national filmmakers’ work in a session dedicated to showcasing short films. From ecological and digital politics in Bristol to films about inequality by ex-prisoners in London and even a ‘short history of Cube in D-minor’, this session gave these diverse films a public platform rarely granted even by independent exhibitors. Rarer still was the festival’s closing feature, De nadie/No One (2006) by Mexican filmmaker Tin Dirdamal. A film on the plight of economic migrants who suffer rape, robbery and murder at the hands of gangs, immigration officials and police as they journey toward the USA, this harrowing film was a sombre and moving end to the festival.
Following the success of this event the Bristol Radical Film Festival looks set to return next year, with the organisers also promising to continue with a series of screenings throughout the year in the meantime. Given the breadth and depth of the radical film history on display this year, as well as the thriving body of contemporary work and the range of issues it addressed, this looks like one festival that’s here to stay.
Steve Presence is a lecturer and PhD student in Film Studies at the University of the West of England, Bristol.